Pols Battle Over Future of OpenDocument

Legislators in the Massachusetts will meet in the coming weeks to reconcile differing bills on the use of open documents by state agencies, and the outcome may alter the landscape for open document software, analysts said.

The State Senate last month passed a bill that, among other economic initiatives, required a study of the open document question.

But the House late last week voted on a companion bill that did not include the same provisions in its version of the Commonwealth Investment Act.

"The matter is moving to conference, and it will be voted upon at some point," said Mike Wendy, a spokesman for CompTIA (the Computing Technology Industry Association), based in Chicago, who attended a hearing on Beacon Hill last week.

"The House bill does not have a similar provision calling for a review board to provide greater oversight over IT procurement and policy. That was added as an amendment to the Senate bill."

The House vote followed a hectic week in the state legislature where the issue of open document software was the subject of a significant public hearing.

The hearing, presided over by Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Democrat who chairs the Senates Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, was held last Monday.

The hearing was called to examine the policy put forth by an IT agency of the executive branch of the state government that called for "open document" creation software—defined as including PDF and the OASIS OpenDocument format—to be used for all communications within the executive branch.

The policy is called ODF (OpenDocument Format) for Office Applications by the IT Division of Massachusetts, and was poised to go into effect by January of 2007.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about the Massachusetts OpenDocument debate.

During the hearing, Pacheco was critical of the process that the states executive branch used when making the decision to define open document as it did, but opened the floor to Peter Quinn, the states CIO, and Linda Hamel, the general counsel of the states IT division.

The question of whether the executive branch had the authority under the states constitution to make the decision was also raised, and the attorney, Hamel, was given some time to come back to the committee with case law demonstrating that the decision was in fact sound and based on precedent, Wendy said.

The battle has been waged—mostly behind the scenes, and away from the public spotlight—for close to two years now, ever since the executive branch started exploring the idea of open document managment as a potential cost savings for the government.

The policy to go forward with open document software was formally introduced in September.

Sen. Pachecos office did not respond to an inquiry seeking comment.

Companies like Sun Microsystems Inc., maker of StarOffice, and others such as Adobe Systems Inc., Novell Inc. and IBM could benefit from the definition of open source that is being promoted by the state government.

A spokesman for Sun told Ziff-Davis Internet that the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company was supportive of efforts to promote OpenDocument.

Microsoft Corp. is not, however, supporting OASIS OpenDocument technology in its suite of Office products.

The matter is now generating public controversy, as many software companies, including Microsoft, have been critical of the initiative.

An industry coalition funded by Microsoft, EDS and about 300 other international software firms submitted testimony to the Senate last week that was sharply critical of the IT Divisions policy.

The written testimony said that the coalition, called the Initiative for Software Choice, opposed government regulations that mandated the use of specific kinds of software.

/zimages/2/28571.gifMicrosoft challenges Massachusetts on its open format plan. Click here to read more.

The coalition, however, does support the idea of making government records more easily accessible by citizens.

"This will be no simple switch," said Melanie Wyne, executive director of the Initiative for Software Choice, based in suburban Washington D.C. "The free licenses that replace the current system will not come without lingering costs.

"The original policy document that lead to the ODF plan said that the switch would take time, energy and money [because] We have a large installed base of systems, many using obsolete technology, which cannot be quickly converted or replaced. We could not agree more wholeheartedly."

According to Wyne, possible costs from the transition to the open document format included:

  • Access to limited talent and outsourced consultants that can install, train, archive and maintain the switchover process;
  • Institutional re-training of rank-and-file, agency and private sector individuals;
  • Riddance of useful licenses beyond the January 2007 deadline;
  • Development, implementation and training concerning the use of new, ODF-compatible technologies to aid the disabled;
  • Elimination of de facto/market-based options, restricting what can be acquired in the future; and
  • Jettison of much of the present infrastructure/ network effect at the agency, public and private levels.

However, Wyne said that ODF itself is not fundamentally flawed.

"The ODF mandate, however, is," he added.

"The previous policy encouraged a multitude of open data formats, was inclusive of software licensing models that meet certain objective openness requirements and achieved a high-level of interoperability within the Commonwealth, as well as with the wider public. The ODF policy does not," said Wyne.

According to Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn, the state was looking at a variety of options to implement its plans, including using conversion tools to create open documents.

The official has been outspoken on the use of open document formats as well as the adoption of Linux by agencies.

"If we have to convert everything as we go along, well look at the cost [associated] with it and make decisions based on whats best for the taxpayers. Well also look at other options, like Linux systems, because open source and open standards are where the world is going," Quinn said in a conference call in Sept.

State legislators are now seeking information about what the final costs of the transition to the ODF policy will be, and are expecting that information to be in hand in the coming weeks, said Wendy.

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